Life, Death, Legend
By Stephen Davis
Gotham Books, 482 pages, $39.50
Since the death of Jim Morrison in July, 1971, and the dissolution of The Doors soon thereafter, there have been many, many books dealing with the band and its "debauched, drunken sot" (as noted groupie Miss Pamela once referred to him) of a lead singer. Among the first was Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman's No One Gets Out of Here Alive (a book the band itself referred to as "No One Here Tells Anything But Lies"). Rock historian David Dalton published the well received Mr. Mojo Risin': The Last Holy Fool in 1991. Band members Ray Manzarek ( Light My Fire) and John Densmore ( Riders on the Storm) have chipped in with their own first-person accounts, and there have been numerous picture books, lyric compilations, unauthorized biographies, speculative fictions and the like.
Boston-based rock biographer Stephen Davis, however, has attempted to write the definitive account of the band and its charismatic but troubled lead singer. Davis is an old hand at this sort of thing, best known for his spicy Led Zeppelin bio Hammer of the Gods, and well-lauded for accounts of The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Aerosmith and The Band (co-written with Levon Helm). And there is no doubt that his account is as thorough as it's possible to get, picking up the thread of Morrison's life from his earliest days and moving right through until his overdose and death in a Paris bathtub in 1971.
But what sets Life, Death, Legend apart from other Morrison biographies is a series of startling revelations about the bad-boy singer that have only been the stuff of gossip and innuendo to this point. Davis claims that Morrison was molested by his father at a young age, that Morrison had a long series of homosexual relationships, that Morrison was a bully, a lout and a thoroughly unlikable youth, and that he assaulted and abused women on numerous occasions.
Or did he? While the book has many merits (the look at life inside the band, mention made of seemingly every concert performance the band ever made), much of what Davis reports in the early going is based on hearsay, speculation and supposition, and the book contains so many possiblys and maybes and perhapses that it all tends to cast Davis's research into question.
For example, we learn early on (though I'm not sure we really needed to know) that, as a child, Morrison was a bedwetter, a condition for which his mother had no patience. Davis then speculates that the bedwetting "may have been connected to a childhood bout with rheumatic fever" and that "this illness might have, additionally, weakened Jimmy's heart." As Morrison died at the age of 27, this could be seen as a crucial contributing factor, but no evidence is presented to back up the contention.
Davis introduces the concept of child molestation early on, reporting that Morrison had hinted to his attorney, Max Fink, that he had been "molested by a man when he was a boy." Davis mutes the allegations somewhat by introducing the story with the phrase, "If Jim Morrison's lawyer is to be believed," which undermines the credibility of whole thing.
Later, when discussing Morrison's tendency to act out at school, Davis surmises that "the anecdotal and visual evidence suggests that Jim Morrison suffered an undiagnosed case of petit mal epilepsy that may have begun at age fourteen." But as Davis boasts no medical degree, this seems to be a conclusion pulled from thin air.
Among the other rabbits pulled from hats, Davis talks about what might have been Morrison's first acid trip ("Felix might have given Jimmy acid for the first time"), Morrison's possible racist leanings ("Jimmy seemed to have a racist fear of black people"), a possible meeting with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones ("It's possible that Jimmy Morrison had some kind of encounter with Brian Jones"), the supposition that no less than J. Edgar Hoover was behind the attempt to have Morrison convicted of indecent exposure at the now notorious Miami concert ("J. Edgar Hoover may have had a hand in the persecution of Jim Morrison"), that he had an underage lover (he was "said to be . . . hiding . . . with a secret fifteen year old girlfriend with whom he shared a motel love nest") and the vague possibility that Jim had a menage à trois with keyboardist Ray Manzarek and his girlfriend ("one can only speculate on the sexual politics in the garage flat on Fraser").
The biggest bombshell of all is reserved for what Davis hints at were Morrison's homosexual experimentations, but again, no hard proof is given. At one point, Davis relates the story that Jim had told Max Fink, that he had been intimately involved with a man during his junior college days. The man was a club owner named Tom Reese, who, when questioned about the incident years later, would neither confirm nor deny the allegations. "Well, let's put it this way," Reese said. "Everyone wanted to." Later, Davis relates rumours about Morrison's disappearances when the band wasn't working. He was "said to be holed up with some gay friends at a ranch in Topanga Canyon." Again, lots of allegations, no real proof.
This isn't meant to imply that the book is completely without merit. Davis seems to be a tireless researcher and interviewer, and he portrays Morrison as a tragic figure, a man given to extreme excesses and loutish behaviour, who simply seemed to be playing out his destiny in Paris. Davis's sense of time and place is good, and he carefully places Morrison and The Doors in the context of the volatile era in which they lived.
Perhaps Davis himself was not even aware of the large number of unproved theories he was putting forward. Perhaps he included the gossip and innuendo and suppositions that he did simply in an attempt to tell the whole story. Perhaps he simply bought into the rumours because his research led him to believe that all of it was true. But it seems odd that a proven biographer could so thoughtlessly and effortlessly give credence to every wispy theory imaginable concerning a man who can't even respond to the allegations. A work of this magnitude should be about truth, not simply speculation. Otherwise, why bother?
Alan Niester writes frequently about pop music for The Globe and Mail. He specifically remembers buying the first Doors album while in Montreal visiting Expo 67.